Famed as a country of contrasts with the delta of the world’s longest river snaking through immense dry deserts, crowded cities in great swathes of emptiness, ancient monuments, flashy modern cars, and a huge disparity between rich and poor, Egypt has been written and raved about since the beginning of recorded history and has always captured the world’s imagination. We were treading in some pretty big footsteps and it worried us slightly: in two weeks would we really be able to add anything new to what is already known?
Having been to Egypt in November 2010 – a couple of months before the first of their recent revolutions – Lucy was back on semi-familiar territory, but we both knew that a lot had happened in the meantime and the buzzwords flying around spoke of political upheaval, insecurity and increased sexual aggravation towards foreign women. We had been specifically warned against driving through the Sinai – our necessary route to Jordan – on the grounds of insecurity and to strain the situation further we were unintentionally hitting off a presidential election and had been advised to roar through the country at top speed to be out the other side before this event took place. We were looking forward to Egypt but unsure of what to expect.
Bidding farewell to our Libyan guide Abdul, we exit Libya in a matter of 10 minutes and begin our entrance into Egypt. Bureaucracy here is legendary: it had once taken some friends three days to cross the Egyptian border so with this in mind we’ve stocked up on supplies and figure we’ll have plenty of time to catch up on our diaries.
But after searching the car quite a few times, attempting to confiscate Anne-Laure’s two inch bladed penknife on the grounds that it’s illegal to bring weapons into Egypt – a soldier cutting himself in the process not helping our argument that it isn’t dangerous – and charging us a land post tax, traffic fees, customs and visa fees, insurance, number plate charges, and border exit fee we are waved on our way after only four hours with a friendly ‘Welcome to Egypt’ ringing in our ears.
After our controlled journey through Libya it’s blissful to be independent again, driving by ourselves and in charge of our own schedule. It’s getting late but we push on wanting to put a bit of distance between ourselves and the border, so passing police and military checkpoints that crop up even more regularly than in Libya we eventually pull into Sidi Barrani exhausted and filthy, and are given a hot cup of black tea and a warm welcome.
En route to Alex
Not bothering with alarm clocks we leave for Alexandria around lunchtime and – in stark contrast to the unspoilt Libyan Mediterranean – drive along miles and miles of built up coastline, narrowly avoiding an accident at the hands of a sleazy guy in a pick-up who keeps blowing kisses and swerving at us.
We stop to visit the beautifully maintained El Alamein War Cemetery where Landy feels so much at home that she flatly refuses to start for 45 minutes while we pump and bleed the diesel system. Telling her that a change of filters is planned for our first week in Jordan and we aren’t going to have much time before then so can she please stop complaining, we press on.
We are soon just 70km from Alex on a smooth fast road thinking that we might even make it to our hotel for 8.30pm. Wishful thinking: lack of signage has us taking a couple of wrong turns and even when back on the right track the road descends into a sandy rutted track where we compete with horses and carts, hitch-hikers, tuk-tuks, brightly painted trucks, cars, donkeys and taxis for road space, everyone hooting and flashing their multicoloured lights with dust flying everywhere. It’s worryingly like playing Mario Kart and we have to remind ourselves that the consequences of messing up here are rather more severe.
Eventually we reach the rabbit warren of one way streets that is downtown Alexandria and somehow find ourselves blocking a small crossroads, seemingly bringing the whole of the city centre to a halt: vehicles hoot at us, people shout at us, smallholders protect their wares from us and everyone tries to direct us – all with completely different ideas about what we should be doing and where we should be going, and blocking the mirrors so that we can neither see nor do anything at all. This is not helped by grumpy Landy in full stalling mode often needing to be pumped between stalls in order to restart. It’s chaos and we eventually reach our hotel at midnight. Our plan to slide into town unnoticed has definitely not worked out.
Alex is still full of life when we head out for supper at nearly 1.00am. The city is buzzing and vibrant at all hours of the day which is really refreshing after so many countries where even capital cities shut down as the sun sets. People hang out late in street bars and cafés, couples hold hands, women drive themselves around at any hour they choose or sit drinking beer with uncovered hair and short sleeves. The vibe is relaxed and friendly. These are all sights we haven’t seen for some time, and we really enjoy it. Egypt feels like a great place to be.
Alexandria is full of gorgeous old haunts where old men sit playing dominoes and backgammon. There is beauty in both the classic and modern architecture, a notable example of the latter being the discus shaped Bibliotheca Alexandrina. The elegant corniche gives the city a similar feel of crumbling grandeur to other Mediterranean cities we’ve visited. We’ve discovered on this journey that there is something in the atmosphere of a Mediterranean city that is unique to the Med and common to all of the older coastal cities – Alex has a completely different feel to the other Egyptian towns we later encounter on the shores of the Red Sea.
We have made plans to stay with friends in a Cairo suburb for a couple of nights and it’s only when driving in to meet them that we realise that we have got the time wrong – apparently the clocks changed just after we entered Egypt so we’ve been an hour behind for four days. Although apart from being late for our friends it hasn’t made any difference whatsoever as far as we can tell…things seem to happen at all hours in Egypt so people are flexible with time.
Staying with Karim, Jiji and Hazem in their fashionable Maadi crash pad with Prince the golden retriever and Taxi the newborn black and white kitten, we are swept straight into the Egyptian party scene. Time doesn’t pause for a moment as our new friends energetically give us a flavour of their stylish suburb feeding us delicious Egyptian molokhaya and fatta in Karim’s trendy restaurant.
After two nights we’re partied out and want to experience central Cairo so driving through Tahrir Square on our way to a characterful downtown hotel we soon head out to explore.
With a thick layer of dust covering the entire city Cairo looks as though it could do with a good scrub. Everybody is busy, rushing around shouting out to one another, their giant mobile phones constantly ringing – communication is a key aspect to life in this city.
As in Alex, the driving is crazy and pushy but this has more to do with the sheer volume and variety of traffic on the often bad roads and everyone’s desire to get somewhere rather than any particularly poor driving. Apart from the one seedy guy en route to Alexandria we don’t see the Libyan kamikaze spirit on the roads in Egypt at all, and – on a different note but with the same exception – we don’t experience any sexually oriented hassle the entire time we’re in the country either.
The city is frenetic yet surprisingly easy to get around with inexpensive taxis everywhere you look for them and most cars stopping to let you cross if you smile and make eye contact.
Fights seem to break out on a regular basis – we see two within 24 hours – flaring up fast and unexpectedly, everybody within earshot getting involved and calm restored just as quickly with everyone going back to their usual daily business.
The street food in Cairo is sensational, with the best bread we’ve found on our journey so far available across the spectrum from cheap street food joints to posh restaurants. Aish – bread – is also the word for ‘life’, which indicates its importance here. Boys on bicycles with massive crates of bread on their heads ride effortlessly through the traffic in an amazing feat of nerve and co-ordination.
One of our first encounters is with Hassan, an elderly Egyptian who approaches us to give (unasked for) directions. We walk with him for a few minutes as he chats away happily. He’s incredibly friendly and invites us into his office for tea – feigning offence when we try to refuse his hospitality. We decide to run with it and find ourselves sitting in a perfume shop. Talk soon turns to perfume…Hassan bottling up a medium sized container and handing it to Anne-Laure as a ‘gift’, 30 seconds later demanding an extortionate amount of money for it – even the shop owner raises his eyebrows at the price – then gets angry when we hand it back. He simply can’t understand that we don’t actually want it and will definitely not be paying for it, and has no interest in hearing this when we try to explain – he just reduces the price down to practically nothing, becoming more and more angry when we still don’t bite.
This interaction couldn’t be more different from our Libyan experience where no-one would have tried to sell us stuff so sneakily. It’s a shame because until that point we thought he was just a friendly guy and just might have bought something from him had he not tried to pressure us into a sale. We leave him furiously jumping around the shop but are not going to be coerced into giving money to a bully just to keep the peace.
The saddest part is that from this point forward we are much more guarded and may well have missed out on interesting conversations with genuinely friendly people as a consequence.
One thing we discover whilst attacking the mayhem of the Cairo ring road is that having a seriously loud horn gives certain vehicles a huge advantage – Landy’s friendly beep just isn’t cutting it. Wandering by chance into the spare auto parts district we find a wide variety of ear-splitting horns that Hatem, the congenial guy manning the stall, takes great pleasure in playing to us. After about the third demo we find one that doesn’t sound too much like an emergency services vehicle and plump for it with smiles all round. It’s not expensive and is just the positive interaction we need to put Hassan and the perfume incident out of our minds.
We decide to wire it up to the last available switch on our dashboard rather than replacing our existing horn so that Landy will have a different tone depending on who she’s talking to – a choice between ‘Hello I’m here’ and ‘Get the **** out of my way!’.
We spend a day wandering around the district of Khan el Khalili with its stunning ancient architecture and streets upon streets of mosques, and climb a minaret affording us panoramic views of Cairo…from this vantage point the ‘city of a thousand minarets’ also turns out to be the city of ten thousand broken chairs abandoned on rooftops.
Shainaz, a professional singer and oud (lute) player, with another more famous stage name, who has played all over Egypt and neighbouring countries is sitting at the next table and lets us try some of her dishes when we’re deciding what to order. She comes and joins us, somebody produces an oud and she begins to play and sing, the next door table filling up with a group of ladies who sing along in company.
After lunch we get lost exploring the tiny streets and ancient city walls around the souk, finding the distinct areas for catering equipment, jewellery, souvenirs, spices and many other odds and ends, receiving surprisingly little hassle from anyone once we get past the first row deep of shops where most of the souvenirs are.
In the Islamic quarter especially, but all over Egypt we meet many devout Muslim men with calloused foreheads from praying. This is something we’ve barely seen outside of Egypt and like other people we come across they are polite, friendly and fun.
As in every country since Morocco, we visit a hammam, and for the first time come out feeling dirtier than we went in. The changing area is full of animals, birds and discarded food, and even in the inner sanctum the woman massaging us is smoking a cigarette at the same time and throws the butt on the floor when she has finished with it.
All the other women are being covered in a sandy coloured substance so it’s a bit of a shock when the woman takes us by the hand and slathers us with a thick scarlet paste. We’re not slow in scrubbing it off again a bit terrified that it will stain our entire bodies pink – which it does to a certain extent and there are still traces of it over a week later. Our friends speculate but we never do find out what it is…
Downtown Cairo friends
We meet up with Hunia, an architect and friend of a friend, who becomes the lynch-pin of a crowd of new Cairene mates. She had been extremely active in the January 2011 revolution, demonstrating every day from day three of the uprising and once spending the night in Tahrir Square. Through Hunia we meet Marwan, Yassin, Leila and Anais – also architects – and with them explore town, finding cultural centres and trying further new Egyptian foods: gelatinous pigs trotter in vine leaves, stuffed pigeon and koshari, a delicious carbfest of rice, pasta, lentils and tomato sauce that sits in your stomach like a brick for several hours afterwards.
With Hunia and Marwan we walk along streets close to Tahrir Square looking at revolutionary graffiti, hanging out in the middle of the road openly discussing the past and current Egyptian political situation and marvelling at how the graffiti has developed with the political sentiments of the country during the two recent Egyptian revolutions and how it continues to evolve today.
Our nights culminate variously in cafés, rooftop bars and once on a 2.00am Nile felucca trip, further demonstrating that in Cairo you can do anything you want whenever you feel like it. It’s gorgeous to be out on the river, a magical experience, and there’s a certain tranquillity to bobbing about with no engine on the still Nile waters but it can’t really be described as peaceful – even at this time there are party boats out and about playing unbelievably loud music and flashing multicoloured lights.
We hit off an Islamic holy day, which we discover means a ‘dry day’ for all Egyptians – whether Muslim, Christian or of any other religion. Apparently if we produce our passports we are allowed an alcoholic drink – but only if we sit on a separate table to our Egyptian friends.
Another evening we’re invited into the home of Ali and Elisabeth, who are great fun and incredibly hospitable, plying us with food and drink and giving us helpful advice about crossing the Sinai and other aspects of our onward route.
Nearly every night we crawl to bed way into the small hours…Cairo really is the city that never sleeps and we don’t sleep much here either.
Visiting the Egyptian Museum we are really impressed to see that many of the antiquities looted during the January 2011 revolution have been returned and restored. Numerous other items have been recently repatriated from abroad implying an international confidence in post-revolution Egypt. We see some tourists at the museum but most of the visitors are Egyptian.
The pyramids at Giza are magnificent as ever but this site too is quiet in terms of tourists. Visiting in 2010 there had been a huge scramble for the limited number of tickets to enter the Great Pyramid of Cheops – today we just wander to the ticket office and pick them up. We’re lucky to see the pyramids with so few people about but it’s sad to see the economic situation in terms of tourism so diminished, especially for the large number of people whose livelihoods depend upon it.
As expected we are on the receiving end of a lot of hassle with everyone trying to sell us camel rides and cold drinks but it seems that the main difference in the vendors’ behaviour is that they now approach the Egyptian visitors as well – our Cairene friends are under the impression that the general level of hassle has got worse due to the economic situation and apologise to us for this. We’re able to enlighten them that it had been exactly the same in the pre-revolution boom time which really shocks them. It strikes us as funny how they have only now noticed it now that they too are fair game.
To tip or not to tip?
Money can be awkward in Egypt and there are a few occasions when we don’t know whether to tip people – it is hard to navigate as we don’t want to upset or offend anyone (either by offering or not offering a tip) but nor do we want to get ripped off or just hand out money when it isn’t appropriate. This dilemma often slightly tarnishes the end of previously lovely interactions: should we be tipping Shainaz? The diesel pump attendants? The cigarette smoking masseuse? A waiter who gives us free drinks (that we later worry have been stolen from the restaurant where he worked)? The guy who shows us to the top of the minaret? This seems to be far more complicated than in previous countries and we find it hard to judge expectations or to distinguish between a service and an act of hospitality or friendship.
Leaving Cairo at 6.00am we enjoy rare empty roads as we head for Suez. Security is tight, we are stopped by officials several times and Landy is unexpectedly x-rayed – with us inside her. It transpires that their main concern is whether we have whisky in the car so not finding any they soon get bored and wave us through. Driving under the Suez canal, we cross into Sinai and taking the route we’ve been advised is safest, travel right down the west coast to Sharm El Sheikh before coming back up the east coast as far as Nuweiba.
It beomes stiflingly hot, arid, dusty and dry so the occasional glimpses we catch of the Red Sea are really refreshing. Sinai is mountainous, empty and vast and seems to radiate the heat back at us. And just when we feel that we can’t cope if it gets any hotter Landy begins to feel it too so we have to turn on the heater in the cab to draw the worst of it away from the engine.
Having reached camp in the dark it’s wonderful to wake overlooking the beautiful Gulf of Aqaba. Lacking the unmistakable aura of history so evident in the mainland cities, Sinai feels freer and less frenetic. People are friendly and welcoming here too but a sense of peace prevails and a relaxing absence of urgency. Even the ongoing presidential election is barely noticeable. We can breathe out.
We find Egyptians to be political people and the subjects of the election and preceding revolutions are raised continuously. Often lumped under one ‘Arab Spring’ umbrella it is important to stress that the revolutions here were completely different to those in Tunisia and Libya – which were also distinct from one another. For a start, in Egypt there were two of them.
The first was in January/February 2011 with the toppling of long-standing President Mubarak, people finally snapping after decades of corruption and fear of the secret police hiding people ‘behind the sun’ where they disappeared without trial or stated reason, often for years and years.
In the immediate aftermath of this revolution the police disappeared from the streets. Widespread chaos abounded with looters even marching into McDonald’s to flip themselves burgers. Alcohol was looted from nightclubs and passed around the streets so the raiders became drunk and violent. Law-abiders were forced out to protect their property, a friend describing how his Roda community had worked together to control the bridges in order to maintain order on their island.
In the wake of this came the democratically elected Mohammed Morsi, but life under Morsi was grim too: we hear how people lacked basic needs such as electricity, water and gas, that weapons and extremists flooded into the country posing a threat to security and how positions of influence went to powerful Muslim Brotherhood colleagues regardless of ability. The fact that Morsi was not even the most senior Brotherhood figure in Egypt – let alone within the establishment as a whole – restricted his authority and he became seen as a puppet president who prioritised his role within the organisation over the needs of the people he had been elected to serve.
The people and media clamoured for change calling upon the military – and Minister of Defence Abdul Fattah el-Sisi – to restore order. To justify the military take over that was to follow Sisi asked the people to take to the streets again and after two ultimatums issued to Morsi to take control of the situation had passed unacknowledged, declared these to be exceptional circumstances. Morsi was arrested and the streets swarmed with military personnel. It was June/July 2013 and the second Egyptian revolution in two and a half years.
Despite seeming vibrant to us, our friends say that Cairo is still not quite back to the thriving metropolis it was before the two revolutions – but it’s heading in that direction. People agree that the last few years have been a real blur and they sometimes wake up pinching themselves: ‘Is it really true that there was a man called Morsi who was president of Egypt?’.
Almost a year on we find the capital on fire with Sisi fever: posters of him everywhere and everybody talking about him, the great majority of people staunch supporters.
Returning from the pyramids a poster of Sisi is thrust through the window of our cab. Our driver’s face lights up and he enthusiastically displays it in the passenger window, hooting vigorously for the rest of the journey so that passing cars might see – all while weaving in and out of heavy traffic at 80km/h. In the hammam we meet a woman who has written ‘Sisi’ in henna on her arm and chest.
We see a few supporters of Hamdeen Sabahi but only meet one person in the whole of our time in Egypt who openly declares his support for the Muslim Brotherhood and ousted president Morsi.
Having fought so hard to overthrow their last military ruler, Mubarak, there are quite a few who distrust Sisi because of his association with the powerful armed forces – including some our friends – but even they mostly agree that he is the best person for the job right now if only because he has the people behind him and therefore the potential to exercise the changes required without facing too many obstructions.
Many of our friends feel that it is not just a new leader that’s required to sort out Egypt’s problems, but that the people themselves need to work towards this goal as well rather than just expecting the government to sort things out on their behalf. It is their hope that so many recent changes in leadership has generated a greater awareness of the need to work together.
Something that crops up a lot during our stay in Egypt is the concept of democracy, with quite a few people expounding the view that democracy in the form we understand it will not work in Egypt at this point in its history. They feel that certain conditions need to be met before democracy can be successful: basic needs must be serviced, the economic situation needs to be strong. Essentially, in order to concentrate on politics and take the responsibility that their vote requires people cannot be concentrating on where their next meal is coming from as this makes it too easy for unscrupulous politicians to buy their support.
The most popular alternative suggested is that everyone who has attained a certain level of education should be given a vote. These views on democracy may not be widely held in other parts of the world but are stated frequently by the people we meet in Egypt.
We are also interested to discover that in order to prevent politicians from a military background ordering their subordinates to vote for them people serving in the police and armed forces do not have the right to vote at all.
Time and time again Egyptians of all backgrounds stress to us their need for a strong leader and it seems likely that they will now get one. On our last day in Egypt our friend Agami likens the political situation to Egyptian traffic: individual drivers all jostling for position and creating a jam, progress only being made when somebody – generally the car with the loudest horn – forces the others to abide by their system.
Sisi is a hugely powerful figure who is predicted to bring order and stability to Egypt, clamping down on petty crime and extremism and encouraging foreign investment and visitors through improved national security. On the flip side, there is a general awareness that great power is open to great abuse, and Egyptians have lived through this before.
But whatever one thinks of Sisi and his political ambitions there is no doubt that he is currently the car with the loudest horn.
The addition of the super loud horn to Landy suddenly seems extremely apt.
Far more than any other country we’ve been to on this trip, the sense of the past was all around us and tangible. Until we reached the Sinai we really could feel that everything we encountered was steeped in its long history: from the still standing ancient wonders to the general obsession with astrology to the bizarrely noticeable likeness between the ancient statues and the living people themselves. Hieroglyphics are referenced on the new Alexandria library and historic gods crop up in political graffiti. Even the street hawkers have been around for hundreds if not thousands of years as mentioned by Ibn Battuta writing in the 14th century.
Egypt right now has certain freedoms and certain restrictions. We were astonished by the number of military personnel and the weapons at their disposal that we saw all over the country but – possibly as a consequence of this – there does seem to be order. It is also possible that these are particular – and temporary – by-products of the present transitional circumstances. And apart from the bureaucracy involved in leaving the country being almost as bad as entering, society doesn’t feel restricting in other ways especially in the freedom of dress, speech and behaviour. It felt incredibly liberating to be able to stand in the road in the middle of the night looking at revolutionary graffiti and talking candidly about politics without feeling any problems, pressures or dangers.
Egypt is home to many many people and in cities at least they are crammed into a very tight space. Loud communication and strong family links are a way of life and – like any family home – everywhere is noisy and bustling. Outside of our groups of friends, few people had an understanding of the European concept of ‘personal space’, and this sometimes took a bit of getting used to.
Egyptians are sociable and incredibly friendly, not at all shy to approach you, bringing humour and sarcasm to any situation. We came across genuine generosity every day, being given tea and cold water whenever the weather was hot, all offered with lashings of friendly banter.
As with all countries, the occasional bad apple would surface and often make a beeline for us – in touristy areas especially – and it was sometimes difficult to differentiate between people just trying to be friendly and those with ulterior motives.
With such huge numbers of people getting on with their lives undeterred by the millions of others around them – and a long-standing familiarity with tourists – it was relatively easy to blend into the background. Perhaps as a consequence of this we found it slightly harder to get under the skin of Egypt than in previous countries along our route but it did allow us the occasional luxury of being able to observe things unnoticed.
So do we have anything new to add? Probably nothing really relevant if you take the long view – and the Egyptian view of anything is always going to be long. But the sands are quickly shifting here, circumstances really are changing, and we were privileged to catch a glimpse of today’s Egypt at this fascinating and specific juncture in her history.
Egypt is a country close to our hearts and we will be watching this space with great interest.